Getting the Jump

Season extension is a pretty big buzzword in the small farm lexicon.  Getting produce to market, both early and late, is viewed as key to financial viability.   For late crops, season extension in a high tunnel means still having produce like tomatoes well into the fall when outdoor-grown tomato plants have become blighted due to damp and cold.

Extending the season in the spring, however, not only increases the quantity of farmers’ markets you can sell into but the quality.  Because Salt Spring is a tourist destination – for which many people come specifically for the Saturday farmer/artisan market- the number for people at the market and, importantly, the willingness of those people to drop vast sums of cash, means that you can theoretically fetch higher prices than at a fall market which is mostly attended by die-hard locals (with our heart felt thanks).

Tomatoes are one of the crops that just about everyone who actually wants to taste a tomato in the same year grow from a plant start that they started in February or March (or perhaps even January if you’re North End Farm and you have a heated greenhouse).  But everyone who sells at the outdoor tourist markets grows tomatoes that way so, with the exception of North End who got their tomatoes to market in late June, most of the rest of us showed up two or three weeks later with ours.

And so it is with most other crops that aren’t typically grown under cover:  peas, beans, strawberries, summer squash, carrots.  We all showed up at roughly at the same time with the same stuff.  But it is this very pattern that I will try to break this spring, once again stealing techniques from my friend Ray at Haliburton Farm in Saanich.  When I visited him last May, one of his three high tunnels had a section of beans already hitting their heads on the 8′ roof.  Selling beans in August, challenging.  In June, easy peasy.

And I can’t think of a good reason not to grow peas in a tunnel either.  Eventually they’ll object to high heat but probably not before decent crops in May and June.  A bit of succession planning with outdoor plantings should mean peas throughout the whole year.  And, unlike beans which really become abundant at August markets, I think peas might be a good crop all season long.  Now, the one caveat.  Precious high tunnel volume has to be filled vertically with these unconventional crops which means growing pole varieties and installing the inevitable trellising.  No pain, no gain.

I can only think of one strawberry grower here who crops them in a tunnel, Foxglove Farm.  This gives Michael a few extra markets to sell this lucrative crop into.  But his strawbs are all grown on the ground with plastic mulch.  I not only plan to infringe on his early strawberry market by growing mine in a tunnel but to grow them vertically, thus stealing an idea that he’s using outside on the urban Vancouver farm he co-directs.  In my case, though, instead of buying expensive PVC pipe, I will modify previously-used food grade plastic pails .  Growing vertically not only maximizes the volume of food grown in the tunnel, it improves the efficiency and ergonomics of the harvest.

Finally, as I said in a recent post, I actually want to grow and sell zucchinis but only one type.  Growing a very early parthenocarpic variety and doing so in a tunnel should allow me to sell them before people get sick of them.


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